Let us consider the effect of camp life upon a pure and noble boy; and to make the picture complete, let us go to his home and witness the parting.
The boy is clothed as a soldier. His pockets and his haversack are stored with little conveniences made by the loving hands of mother, sister and sweetheart, and the sad yet proud hour has arrived. Sisters, smiling through their tears, filled with commingled pride and sorrow, kiss and embrace their great hero.
The mother, with calm heroism suppressing her tender maternal grief, impresses upon his lips a fervent, never to be forgotten kiss, presses him to her heart, and resigns him to God, his country and his honor.
The father, last to part, presses his hand, gazes with ineffable love into his bright eyes, and fearing to trust his feelings for a more lengthy farewell, says, ‘Good bye, my boy; God bless you, be a man’ Let those scoff who will; but let them know that such a parting is itself a new and wonderful power, a soul enlarging, purifying and elevating power, worth the danger, toil and suffering of the soldier. The sister’s tears, the father’s words, the mother’s kiss, planted in the memory of that boy will surely bring forth fruit beautiful as a mother’s love.
As he journeys to the camp, how dear do all at home become ! Oh ! what holy tears he sheds! His heart, how tender! Then, as he nears the line, and sees for the first time the realities of war, the passing sick and weary, and the wounded and bloody dead, his soldier spirit is born; he smiles, his chest expands, his eyes brighten, his heart swells with pride; he hurries on, and soon stands in the magic circle around the glowing fire, the admired and loved pet of a dozen true hearts. Is he happy? Aye!
Never before has he felt such glorious, swelling, panting joy. He’s a soldier now! He is put on guard. No longer the object of care and solicitude, he stands in the solitude of the night, himself a guardian of those who sleep.
Courage is his now. He feels he is trusted as a man, and is ready at once nobly to perish in the defence of his comrades.
He marches. Dare he murmur or complain? No; the eyes of all are upon him, and endurance grows silently, till pain and weariness are familiar, and cheerfully borne.
At home he would be pitied and petted; but now he must endure, or have the contempt of the strong spirits around him.
He is hungry. So are others; and he must not only bear the privation, but he must divide his pitiful meal when he gets it with his comrades; and so generosity strikes down selfishness. In a thousand ways he is tried, and that by sharp critics. His smallest faults are necessarily apparent, for, in the varying conditions of the soldier, every quality is put to the test. If he shows the least cowardice he is undone. His courage must never fail. He must be manly and independent, or he will be told he’s a baby, ridiculed, teased and despised. When war assumes her serious dress, he sees the helplessness of women and children, he hears their piteous appeals, and chivalry burns him till he does his utmost of sacrifice and effort to protect and comfort and cheer them.
It is a mistake to suppose that the older men in the army encouraged vulgarity and obscenity in the young recruit; for even those who themselves indulged in these would frown on the first show of them in a boy, and without hesitation put him down mercilessly. No parent could watch a boy as closely as his messmates did and could, because they saw him at all hours of the day and night, dependent on himself alone: and were merciless critics, who demanded more of their protoge than they were willing to submit to themselves.
The young soldier’s piety had to perish ignominiously, or else assume a boldness and strength which nothing else could so se well impart as the temptations, sneers and dangers of the army. Religion had to be bold, practical and courageous, or die.
In the army the young man learned to value men for what they were, and not on account of education, wealth or station and so his attachments when formed were sincere and durable, and he learned what constitutes a man, and a desirable and reliable friend. The stern demands upon the boy, and the unrelenting criticisms of the mess, soon bring to mind the gentle forbearance, and kind remonstrance, and loving counsels of parents and homefolks, and while he thinks, he weeps, and loves, and reverences, and yearns after the things against which he once strove and under which he chafed and complained.
Home, father, mother, sister — oh! how dear. Himself how contemptible! ever to have felt cold and indifferent to such love. Then, how vividly he recalls the warm pressure of his mother’s lips on the forehead of her boy. How he loves his mother! See him as he fills his pipe from the silk embroidered bag. There is his name embroidered carefully, beautifully by his sisters hand. Does he forget her? Does he not now love her more sincerely and truly and tenderly than ever? Could he love her quite as much had he never parted, never longed to see her and could not; never been uncertain if she was safe, never felt she might be homeless, helpless, insulted, a refugee from home? Can he ever now look on a little girl and not treat her kindly, gently and lovingly — remembering his sister? A boy having ordinary natural goodness, and the home supports described, and the constant watching of men, ready to criticise, could but improve. The least exhibition of selfishness, cowardice, vulgarity, dishonesty, or meanness of any kind, brought down the dislike of every man upon him, and persistence in any one disreputable practice, or habitual laziness and worthlessness, resulted in complete ostracism loneliness and misery; while on the other hand he might, by good behavior and genuine generosity and courage, secure unbounded love and sincere respect from all. Visits home, after prolonged absence and danger, open to the young soldier new treasures — new, because, though possessed always, never before felt and realized.
The affection once seen only in every day attention, as he reaches home, breaks out in unrestrained vehemence. The warm embrace of the hitherto dignified father, the ecstatic pleasure beaming in the mother’s eye, the proud welcome of the sister, and the wild enthusiasm even of the old black mammy, crowd on him the knowledge of their love and make him braver, and stronger, and nobler. He’s a hero from that hour! Death for these how easy!! The dangers of the battle field, and the demands upon his energy, strength and courage, not only strengthen, but almost create new faculties of mind and heart. The death, sudden and terrible, of those dear to him, and the imperative necessity of standing to his duty while the wounded cry and groan, and while his heart yearns after them to help them, and the terrible thirst, and hunger, and heat, and weariness — all these teach a boy self denial, attachment to duty, and the value of peace and safety; and instead of hardening him, as some suppose they do, make him to pity and love even the enemy of his country who bleeds and dies for his country.
The acquirement of subordination certainly is a useful one, and that the soldier perforce has. And that not in an abject, cringing way, but as realizing the necessity of it, and seeing the result of it in the good order and consequent effectiveness and success of the army as a whole, but more particularly of his own company and detachment.
And if the soldier rises to office, the responsibility of command, attention to detail and minutiae, the critical eyes of his subordinates, and the demands of his superiors, all withdraw him from the enticements of vice, and mould him into a solid, substantial character, both capable and willing to meet and overcome difficulties.
The effect of outdoor life on the physical constitution is undoubtedly good, and as the physical improves, the mental is improved; and as the mind is enlightened, the spirit is enabled to grasp the purifying truths of the gospel, and thus the whole man is benefited.
Who can calculate the benefit derived from the contemplation of the beautiful in nature, as the soldier sees? Mountains and valleys, dreary wastes and verdant fields, rivers, sequestered homes, stirred by the sounds of war; quiet, sleepy villages, as they lay in the morning light, doomed to the flames at evening: this enlarges the mind, and stores it with a panorama whose pictures he may pass before his mental vision with quiet pleasure year after year for a lifetime.
War is horrible, but still it is in a sense a privilege to have lived in time of war. The emotions are never so stirred as then. Imagination takes her highest flights, poetry blazes, song stirs the soul, and every noble attribute is brought into full play.
It does seem that the production of one Lee and one Jackson is worth much blood and treasure, and the building of a noble character all the toil and sacrifice of war. The camp fires of the Army of Northern Virginia were not places of revelry and debauchery. They often exhibited gentle scenes of love and humanity, and the purest sentiments and gentlest feelings of man were there admired and loved, while vice and debauch, in any, from highest to lowest, were condemned and punished more severely than they are among those who stay at home and shirk the dangers and toils of the soldier’s life. Indeed, the demoralizing effects of the late war were far more visible ‘at home’ among the skulks, and bombproofs, and suddenly diseased, than in the army.
And the demoralized men of today are not those who served in the army.
The defaulters, the renegades, the bummers and cheats, are the boys who enjoyed fat places and salaries and easy comfort while the solid, respected and reliable men of the community are those who did their duty as soldiers, and having learned to suffer in war have preferred to labor and suffer and earn rather than steal in peace.
And, strange to say, it is not those who suffered most and lost most, who fought and bled — who saw friend after friend fall, who wept the dead and buried their hopes — it is not these who now are bitter and dissatisfied, and quarrelsome and fretful, and growling and complaining — no, they are the peaceful, submissive, law abiding and order loving of the country, ready to join hands with all good men in every good work, and prove themselves as brave and good in peace as they were stubborn and unconquerable in war.
Many a weak, puny boy was returned to his parents a robust, healthy, manly man. Many a timid, helpless boy went home a brave, independent man. Many a wild, reckless boy, went home sobered, serious and trustworthy, and many whose career at home was wicked and blasphemous, went home changed in heart, with principles fixed, to comfort and sustain the old ages of those who gave them to their country, expecting not to receive them again. Men learned that life was passable and enjoyable without a roof or even a tent, to shelter from the storm — that cheerfulness was compatible with cold and hunger, and that a man without money, food or shelter, need not feel utterly hopeless, but might, by employing his wits, find something to eat where he never found it before; and feel that, like a terrapin, he might make himself at home wherever he might be. Men did actually become as independent of the imaginary ‘necessities’ as the very wild beasts. And can a man learn all this and not know better than another how to economize what he has and how to appreciate the numberless superfluities of life? Is he not made, by the knowledge he has of how little he really needs, more independent and less liable to dishonest exertions to procure a competency?
If there were any true men in the South, any brave, any noble, they were in the army. If there are good and true men in the South now, they would go into the army for similar cause. And to prove that the army demoralized, you must prove that the men who came out of it are the worst in the country today. Who will try it?
Strange as it may seem, religion flourished in the army. So great was the work of the chaplains, that whole volumes have been written to describe the religious history of the four years of war. Officers who were ungodly men found themselves restrained alike by the grandeur of the piety of the great chiefs and the earnestness of the humble privates around them.
Thousands embraced the Gospel, and died triumphing over death! Instead of the degradation so dreaded, was the strange ennobling and purifying which made men despise all the things for which they ordinarily strive, and glory in the sternest hardships, the most bitter self denials and cruel suffering and death. Love for home, kindred and friends intensified, was denied the gratification of its yearnings, and made the motive for more complete surrender to the stern demands of duty. Discipline, the cold master of our enemies, never caught up with the gallant devotion of our Christian soldiers, and the science of war quailed before the majesty of an army singing hymns.
Hypocrisy went home to dwell with the able bodied skulkers, being too closely watched in the army and too thoroughly known to thrive. And so the camp fire often lighted the pages of the best Book, while the soldier read the orders of the Captain of his salvation.
And often did the songs of Zion ring loud and clear on the cold night air, while the muskets rattled and the guns boomed in the distance, each intensifying the significance of the other, testing the sincerity of the Christian while trying the courage of the soldier.
Stripped of all sensual allurements, and offering only self denial, patience and endurance, the Gospel took hold of the deepest and purest motives of the soldiers, won them thoroughly, and made the army as famous for its forbearance, temperance, respect for women and children, sobriety, honesty and morality, as it was for endurance and invincible courage.
Never was there an army where feeble old age received such sympathy, consideration and protection; and women, deprived of their natural protectors, fled from the advancing hosts of the enemy and found safe retreat and chivalrous protection and shelter in the lines of the Army of Northern Virginia; while children played in the camps, delighted to nestle in the arms of the roughly clad but tender hearted soldiers. Such was the behavior of the troops on the campaign in Pennsylvania, that the citizens of Gettysburg have in my presence expressed wonder and surprise at their perfect immunity from insult, violence, or even intrusion when their city was occupied by and in complete possession of the Boys in Gray.
Southern Historical Society Papers.
Vol. I. Richmond, Virginia., February, 1876. No. 2
Camp Fires Of The Boys In Gray.
To read first-hand accounts of what life was like for the Civil War soldier read:
The Soldier’s Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War by Robert Bonner.